Towson University getting a new $11 million front door

Towson University's new $11 million gateway off Towsontown Boulevard is nearly complete, and those involved with the project say it's a key element in setting the campus identity.

Kevin King, architect for Ayers Saint Gross, said in 2003 that visitors make a decision about a college campus within three minutes of walking across its threshold.

At the time, King was the point man from the consulting firm that Towson University had hired to come up with a master plan.

The problem for Towson University back then was that nobody knew where that threshold was.

"People don't know when they are on or off the campus," said Jack Nye, who was then TU's director of facilities planning. "There are no defined perimeters. Ask anybody where our front door is and you get 10 different answers."

Stephen's Hall — located up the hill from the 8000 block of York Road — constituted the symbolic front door for the campus. Its clock tower has been emblematic of the school since Stephen's was built as the first administration building, shortly after the school moved to Towson nearly a century ago.

That building was designed by architect Douglas Thomas Jr. , who modeled the imposing Jacobean-style building on Blickling Hall, an English manor house once home to Anne Boleyn, the second of King Henry VIII's wives. (That was back when she was all in one piece.)

The clock tower remained steadfast even as the use of the building underneath it changed and the name of the school changed — from normal school to Towson State Teachers College to Towson State University to Towson University. But there was no indication that this was the entrance to the campus.

Now there will be.

Visitors will soon see a gateway marked by two 18-feet-high brick pillars, as well as 11.5-foot-high pillars for pedestrian walkaways, according to Jonathan Ceci, director of landscape architecture for Ayers Saint Gross.

The gateway also will feature sweeps of brick and stone work, canopy trees and wide expanse of lawn.

Construction is expected to be complete this winter.

The detail work on the pillars and the gateway incorporate the limestone, granite and metal that were used to construct many of the buildings on campus, including historic Stephens Hall and the new College of Liberal Arts building that was just dedicated.

"We very much looked at Stephens Hall for inspiration," said Ceci, noting that the two other firms took the design concepts all the way through to construction.

"The pillars are an attempt to mesh historical elements with the new contemporary buildings," said Heidi Thomas, an architect with Mahan Rykiel, which collaborated with Ayers Saint Gross and Burt Hill Architects on the project.

Visitors will also see University Drive realigned and transformed into a wide boulevard, Ceci said. He also hopes they will see students lounging on the wide expanse of lawn, which will be the gathering space for the campus.

"What they won't see is what made the project so complicated," he said, in reference to the below-grade infrastructure — such as data transmission lines, electical conduits and storm water facilities — that had to be repaired, realigned or replaced.

"It was a huge challenge to make it pleasant with user-friendly driveways and paths."

Vehicles already are using the gateway. Towson University will hold a ceremony when the entire project is finished.

Perhaps the spirit of Anne Boleyn will show up, for old times sake — "with her head tucked underneath her arm," as the song goes.

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